The High Court of South Africa, Eastern Cape Division, sitting in Makhanda, has sentenced Zimbabwean nationals, Francis Chitiyo (35), Trymore Chauke (30), Meshack Chauke (27), Simba Masinge (32), Nhamo Muyambo (32) and Abraham Moyane (36), to sentences ranging between 20 and 16 years, for conspiracy to commit theft of rhino horn and unlawful possession of firearm and ammunition. Five of the men, except for Meshack Chauke, made the much-publicised daring escape from Makhanda Correctional Facility, in October 2022, after their conviction. Chitiyo was sentenced to an effective 20-year jail term, Muyambo to 19 years, Moyane to 18 years, Trymore Chauke and Masinge to 17 years each, and Meshack Chauke to 16 years. Only two of the men were in the country legally.

In the period before 31 July 2018, all the men stayed near each other, with some sharing accommodation in East London. At some point before their arrest on the said date, they conspired to jointly commit rhino poaching, to steal rhino horn and sell same into the lucrative illicit trade in the product. They obtained an unlicensed 375 caliber hunting rifle, which was fitted with a silencer to suppress the gunshots, to avoid detection during their illegal hunt.

On the afternoon of their arrest, the six traveled in two vehicles towards the Makhanda area, where there are numerous game reserves housing populations of rhinos. Before they reached their destination, one of the vehicles suffered a mechanical breakdown. They were stopped by members of the rhino poaching task team of the police, patrolling the N2 highway while towing the other vehicle. Inside the vehicles, two axes, knives, and cellphones were discovered. The disassembled hunting rifle was found concealed in the tailgate of one of the vehicles.

While the gang was in custody, no rhino poaching incidents were reported in the Eastern Cape. However, since the escape of the five, 13 rhinos were poached during the first three months of 2023. Investigations to establish the involvement of the gang in the said poachings are being conducted and further charges will be brought in the subsequent trial if they are linked. Delivering the sentence, the court noted that it was more than a coincidence that when the gang was in custody there were no poaching incidents in the Eastern Cape.

Eastern Cape Director of Public Prosecutions, Barry Madolo commended the investigating team and the prosecutor for securing the lengthy jail terms, even though they were not convicted of the actual killing of a rhino or the theft of a rhino horn.

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